What do women re­ally want?

From By­ron to Poldark’s Ai­den Turner, his­to­rian in­ves­ti­gates fe­male lust

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Carol Dy­house Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, £20 Re­view by Les­ley McDow­ell

WHEN the BBC aired its up­dated ver­sion of Poldark in 2015, the actor play­ing its epony­mous hero al­most caused an in­ter­net melt­down. A shirt­less Ai­dan Turner sub­se­quently caused fans to interrupt film­ing in Corn­wall; women, re­port­edly in tears, had to be re­moved af­ter pes­ter­ing him for pho­to­graphs. Turner, in his role as Ross Poldark, had at­tained the sta­tus of heart­throb.

But what does that la­bel mean, and what does its sta­tus im­ply? Dy­house, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Sus­sex Univer­sity who writes about gen­der and cul­ture, is tak­ing se­ri­ously a sub­ject that too of­ten in­vites snig­gers. As she points out, women have long been the ob­ject of the male gaze. What hap­pens when that is turned around, and the man is the ob­ject of the fe­male gaze?

Need­less to say, this is a het­ero­sex­ual fe­male gaze, which Dy­house for some rea­son doesn’t spec­ify. But what het­ero­sex­ual women de­sire in a heart­throb is sur­pris­ingly di­verse, and not al­ways as ob­vi­ous as some might think. Be­fore Turner, there was Ru­doph Valentino, and be­fore Valentino there was By­ron. Be­tween Turner and By­ron, what has changed? As women’s po­si­tion in so­ci­ety has moved on, does that mean the way a wo­man looks at men, and what look­ing im­plies, has moved on, too?

Or per­haps the heart­throb is in­dica­tive of some kind of con­stant in het­ero­sex­ual fe­male de­sire. Dy­house places women’s de­sire some­where be­tween these two at­ti­tudes, a tus­sle be­tween progress and the non-chang­ing. And as she ranges through lit­er­ary rep­re­sen­ta­tions from Darcy and Rochester to Chris­tian Grey and Ed­ward Cullen; through film heart­throbs Richard Cham­ber­lain and Mar­lon Brando to Ge­orge Clooney, we do in­deed see both dif­fer­ence as well as the same. For women have liked a bit of the ex­otic stereo­type, as we see in Valentino’s The Sheikh, just as much as they have adored the blue-blood aris­to­crats of Geor­gette Heyer nov­els. And they have swooned over ‘fem­i­nine’ men like Lib­er­ace, as much as over ‘mas­cu­line’ ones like Clint East­wood.

What women have wanted from men in real life, though, has changed. “As the 20th cen­tury drew to its close,” Dy­house writes, “women wanted more from their ideal men than in­tegrity, bread­win­ning and credit cards: they wanted equal­ity, part­ner­ship and com­mu­ni­ca­tion.” In the 1950s, for in­stance, a decade now re­garded as a “pe­riod of in­sta­bil­ity by his­to­ri­ans”, Dy­house writes, “new mod­els of de­sir­able mas­culin­ity” ap­peared, to re­flect the change in so­ci­ety. James Dean, Elvis, and Che Gue­vara rep­re­sented the rebel, the rock star, and the rev­o­lu­tion­ary. These new, dif­fer­ent types ap­pear dur­ing times of so­cial change, she ar­gues.

ONE can only won­der then, in the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate of un­cer­tainty and anx­i­ety, what kind of heart­throb will emerge to chal­lenge the Poldarks of re­cent times, for Dy­house also ar­gues that even to­day the “ap­peal of the pow­er­ful male re­mains strong.” It would be fas­ci­nat­ing to know how many white women who voted for US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump are also keen read­ers of tra­di­tional ro­mance fic­tion; Dy­house ar­gues that, even now, “at­tach­ment to a rich and pow­er­ful man…(of­fers) the prom­ise of a life trans­formed: com­fort, lux­ury, new hori­zons and a so­cial world trans­formed.” As she points out, the years of sec­ond wave fem­i­nism that saw the re­birth of fem­i­nism also saw sales of ro­mance fic­tion rocket.

She high­lights some fas­ci­nat­ing de­tails in the course of her his­tory: Valentino’s wife, Nat­acha Ram­bova, had in­flu­ence over his im­age; the actress Alla Naz­i­mova worked on his ap­pear­ance; June Mathis wrote the screenplay for one of his big­gest hits, the film Blood and Sand; Dorothy Arzner edited that film. The nov­el­ist Eli­nor Glyn re­port­edly schooled him in “how to make love to Glo­ria Swan­son” in the film On the Rocks. As Dy­house shows, most heart­throbs are the in­ven­tions of women, from the Bronte sis­ters and Jane Austen, to Bar­bara Cart­land and E L James.

She also makes a link be­tween heart­throbs and food. In the nov­els of Betty Neels, for ex­am­ple, a pop­u­lar writer of med­i­cal ro­mances in the late 20th cen­tury, she de­picts not only a world that is rapidly van­ish­ing, full of ti­tled men with but­lers and Bent­leys, but also lots of food. “Es­cape and so­lace” are es­sen­tial for read­ers who feel de­prived of both ro­mance and ac­tual sus­te­nance. De­sire, af­ter all, is about lack.

This could have made for a sor­row­ful book, a shame­ful his­tory about what women want and need, and never at­tain. But it’s quite the op­po­site: a rather cel­e­bra­tory study of het­ero­sex­ual fe­male de­sire that em­braces its re­ac­tionary, as well as its pro­gres­sive, as­pects. An un­easy em­brace in the end per­haps, but a fas­ci­nat­ing one nonethe­less.

James Dean, Elvis, and Che Gue­vara rep­re­sented the rebel, the rock star, and the rev­o­lu­tion­ary

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